Social Studies

Art and politics mix it up in the season opener at Denver's MCA.

It would be accurate to call BLOOD: Lines & Connections, the fall-winter exhibit at Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art, a bold effort. It would also not be too far wrong to call the show -- or at least parts of it -- outrageous, confrontational and over the top.

MCA director Cydney Payton selected all the entries herself, looking for just those exact characteristics. Not only did she personally organize BLOOD, but she also supervised its installation. "The show," she says, "is intended to give a global perspective on a variety of ideas from the vantage point of artists who specifically deal with environmental, political, sociological and health-related issues in their work and in their daily life."

Considering the often strident tone of the works she selected, BLOOD is surprisingly elegant and handsomely fills the MCA's galleries. Elegance is not something that's ordinarily associated with shows of politically charged art, but many of the individual pieces -- even those that could be described as bold, outrageous, confrontational and over the top -- are also, dare I say it, absolutely beautiful.

"To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond," by Zhang 
Huan, C-print.
"To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond," by Zhang Huan, C-print.
"The Colors of Berlin," by Stadtblind, installation.
"The Colors of Berlin," by Stadtblind, installation.

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Through January 4
Museum of Contemporary Art, 1275 19th Street
303-298-7554

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The artists in BLOOD hail from around the world and espouse ideas that are, for the most part, left-wing. It's an interesting fact of the art world that liberal politics perfectly reflect the beliefs held by the vast majority of participants -- and not only starving artists, but the millionaire donors, too. Weird, isn't it?

The happy consequence is that the show has generated only a ripple of controversy; really, the biggest ripple was the cancellation of a Christmas party that was to be held at the MCA. The problem was two shocking videos: "Do Not Believe Your Eyes!," by Russian artist Oleg Mavromati, documenting his partial crucifixion in Red Square, and "Reel Time," by Adel Abdessemed from Algeria, which is a short loop of nude couples simulating sex in a gallery setting.

I'd heard about the Christmas-party brouhaha and asked Payton why she didn't relent and turn the videos off during the event. "As an institution, we cannot cave in to censorship," Payton says, "even if it's just pushing a button and turning off a video."

I heartily agree with Payton on this point. Censorship is definitely a bad thing, no matter what. The trouble is, both of those videos are pretty bad things, too.

The show, which Payton sees as a figural exhibit, focuses on what are typically, if incorrectly, called new media: photo-based work, installation and video. Knowing that videos such as the crucifixion and sex tapes would be a major component of BLOOD, I thought I wasn't going to like the show. I think fine-art video faces the same problem as music video: In neither realm are there masterpieces. True, the Mavromati and the Abdessemed are the worst of the lot, but almost all of the videos in the show are boring.

The one exception is "Murmurmurmurmurmur (VeneziaAccademiaRemix)" by Singapore's Herman Chong. Chong has lined two walls with twenty video monitors mounted on shelves at approximately eye level; below, at floor level, are forty red fluorescent lights placed off to one side. On each monitor is the image of a person on a street doing repeated movements. The ethnicity of the people and the international cities they're in subtly add specificity to the otherwise similar performances. Interestingly, from my point of view, the Chong is saved not because it involves video, but because it has an architectonic presence that makes it an installation -- a so-called new medium that I think has panned out.

"The Colors of Berlin," by German collective Stadtblind, is another notable installation, one meant to address Berlin's inferiority complex in comparison with the other great European capitals. The piece looks like a planning study -- well, except for the fact that it's sensitive and intelligent, which planning studies never are -- and is made of cut-up foam core mounted with digital prints, color chips and maps. One of the best things about "The Colors of Berlin" is its minimalist quality. Its placement in a passageway is great, too, because visitors are forced to walk through it as they would down a street.

Another artist collective, South Africa's Art for Humanity, is responsible for a group of pieces that are actually parts of a portfolio of billboards and posters that have been displayed as a single installation. The portfolio, titled "Break the Silence," has the most clearly stated objective of anything in BLOOD: the elimination of AIDS.

In addition to videos and installations are many photo-based pieces. Among the standouts in this group are those by two Chinese artists, Zhu Ming and Zhang Huan, who have been riding a tide of popularity during the past year or so. Both are represented in BLOOD by photographic recordings of their staged performances.

One series by Ming documents a stunt in which he rode the ocean in an inflatable balloon, using toxic paints to coat the inside. Huan's C-print photographs are considerably smarter, like the stack of corpulent female nudes in "To Add One Meter to Anonymous Mountain," or the men standing chest-deep in water in "To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond."

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